Conviction in Son’s Death Overturned; Court Criticizes Gansler’s Use of SIDS Statistics in Insurance Argument

Maryland’s highest court yesterday overturned the 1999 murder conviction of a man accused of smothering two of his children during the 1980s for $190,000 in insurance money.

Garrett E. Wilson, 46, was convicted and sentenced to life without parole in 1999 in the 1987 death of his 5-month-old son, Garrett Michael, who was allegedly smothered in his crib after a late-night feeding.

Garrett Michael’s death was initially attributed to sudden infant death syndrome, and Wilson collected more than $150,000 in life insurance. Police began investigating the child’s death after Wilson’s former wife came to them in 1994. Wilson was later charged in the 1981 death of his first child, Brandi Jean, in Prince George’s County.

In a 27-page opinion filed yesterday, the Court of Appeals ruled that a Montgomery County judge erred in her judicial discretion by allowing two SIDS experts to testify using statistics to explain the odds of two SIDS deaths in the same family. The court also ruled that Montgomery State’s Attorney Douglas M. Gansler, trying his first case in Maryland, acted improperly in his closing argument when he used the statistics to assess the likelihood of Wilson’s guilt.

“There’s nothing improper about what I said,” Gansler said yesterday. “They wanted an opportunity to take a shot at me, and they did.”

Gansler said that his office will retry Wilson.

Wilson’s attorney, Barry Helfand, said he was thrilled with the court’s decision. “I knew this case was going to come back, because it was filled with errors,” Helfand said.

The investigation of the children’s deaths began in 1994, when Wilson’s ex-wife, Mary “Missy” Anastasi, contacted Montgomery police and told them that she believed Wilson smothered their son Aug. 22, 1987, after getting up in the early hours of the morning to give the baby a bottle.

The state medical examiner later reviewed new evidence — including the fact that Wilson had taken out insurance policies on both of the children — and ruled Garrett Michael’s death a homicide.

Wilson was arrested and charged with first-degree murder in 1998. He was later charged with first-degree murder in the 1981 death of his daughter, which had also been blamed on sudden infant death syndrome.

Doctors have identified risk factors for SIDS, such as sleep position or maternal smoking during pregnancy, but there is little agreement as to its cause.

During Wilson’s 1999 trial, the medical examiner who performed Garrett Michael’s autopsy told jurors that he had calculated the likelihood that Garrett Michael had died of SIDS as 1 in 100 million, in part because he suffered cerebral swelling, which is rare in SIDS babies. Another expert gave the probability of two SIDS deaths in the same family as 1 in 4 million.

Such calculations were invalid, the Court of Appeals ruled, because they were based on the contested premise that there is no genetic link that explains SIDS.

“There is little agreement to the causes of SIDS,” the judges wrote. “This is particularly true with regard to the role of genetics. Some, including the state, argue that it is generally accepted that there is no genetic defect or condition that can be tied to SIDS.” But, the judges pointed out, a 2001 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggested that there may be a genetic link in a small number of SIDS cases.

In his closing statement, Gansler had referred to the medical examiner’s statistics.

“If you multiply his numbers . . . you get 1 in 10 million that the man sitting here is innocent,” Gansler told jurors.

“The State’s Attorney was well aware that the statistical evidence could not be used to calculate the probability of petitioner’s innocence,” the judges said in their opinion, written by Judge Irma S. Raker. “His argument was improper.”

Fran Longwell, prosecutor in the Prince George’s murder case against Wilson, said she plans on moving forward with her case, scheduled for trial Feb. 3, and will not wait for the Montgomery case to be retried.

“We’re ready, and we’re moving forward,” Longwell said.

Longwell said the Prince George’s case was delayed to get clarification from the appellate court as to what evidence prosecutors could present.

Staff writer Ruben Castaneda contributed to this report.